Netherlands • 1582−1666
Frans Hals (c. 1581, Antwerp, Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium) - August 29, 1666, Haarlem, Netherlands) was a Dutch Golden Age painter who specialized in portraits. He developed a technique close to impressionism. The technique was characterized by unusually free and powerful brushwork. He introduced his lively style into Dutch painting and played an important role in the evolution of the group portrait of the 17th century.

Features of the artist Frans Hals’s works: Although Frans Hals received recognition as a portrait painter, he also painted scenes from everyday life and created a series of four paintings of the four evangelists. The popularity of his works, among which there were a number of important group portraits, was evidenced by “Description and Praise of the City of Haarlem” in 1628. Its author, Samuel Ampzing, praised the artist’s ability to “capture the spirit of his sitters in portraits.”

At that time, Theodor Schrevel, a city dweller, had noted that the painter’s works reflected “such power and life” that it seemed that he “defies nature with his brush”. Centuries later, Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: “What a pleasure to look at the paintings by Frans Hals, how different they are from other ones, most of them, where everything is so carefully smoothed and painted in the same manner.”

Unlike fellow contemporaries, Hals avoided the polished texture and smooth application of paint in his works. He emphasized the details and gave vividness to the models with the help of visible brushstrokes, lines, spots and large patches of color. That technique became very popular in the 19th century, especially among the impressionists.

Famous paintings by Frans Hals: “The Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1639”, “The Laughing Cavalier”, “The Regents of the Old Men’s Almshouse”, “The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem”.

Rembrandt, Vermeer and two wives

In the pantheon of Dutch Golden Age artists, France Hals took the very next place after Rembrandt and, over the last hundred years, Johannes Vermeer. Furthermore, in the second half of the XIX century in certain circles, especially in Paris, he was appreciated much more than both of the artists mentioned above. At that time, Vermeer’s small legacy was just beginning to be rediscovered, and the vibrant palette and bold manner of Hals’ paintings attracted more realist and impressionist artists rather than the Rembrandt technique consecrated for centuries.

Meanwhile, information about the first 20 – 30 years of the painter’s life is extremely meager. It is known that he was born in Antwerp somewhere between 1581 and 1585 in the family of cloth merchant Franchois Hals and his second wife Adriaentje van Geertenryck. Shortly after the siege of Antwerp in 1585, the family moved to Haarlem, where Frans Hals stayed until his death (apart from several short trips, including the trip to Antwerp in 1616, where he got acquainted with the work of Peter Paul Rubens).

There is no information given about who was a teacher of the young talent. According to some reports, he entered the apprentice to Karel van Mander, but he did not mention that fact in his “Book of Painters.” It could be assumed that the master took the young man after he published the treatise in 1604, but he had not lived in Haarlem since 1603 and until his death. Thus, the first reliable documented fact in the biography of Hals was his entry into the Guild of St. Luke in 1610.

Around the same time, he married the daughter of a bleacher, Anneke Harmensdochter. They had three children, but only one of them, Harmen, who followed his parents’ career path, reached adulthood. That union was supposed to introduce Hals to the ruling elite, because Anneke’s godfather and guardian was a wealthy brewer and a city council member, Job Claesz Gijbland. However, for unknown reasons, he was not interested enough in the artist and his family. That was eloquently indicated by the fact that he did not prevent the burial of Anneke in a mass grave after her death in May 1615.

Two years later, Hals married the second time. She was the daughter of glassblower, Lisbeth Reyniers, a woman of violent temper, whom the city authorities reprimanded for scandals several times. She bore him 11 children (he gave birth to their first daughter nine days after marriage), four of whom also became painters. The total number of artists in the family was approximately ten people, including the brother, nephews and son-in-law of Hals, but no one reached the heights of his skill.

Success and poverty

In 1616, the artist’s career went uphill: he was commissioned to paint “The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company”. That was the first out of ten large group portraits that Hals created for public institutions. The last two of them, depicting the regentesses and regents of the Old Men’s Almshouse in Haarlem, date back to 1664, when the master was already about eighty-two years old. Since the 1860s, those and other works by Hals made the museum in his native Haarlem a mecca for artists such as Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill WhistlerWilliam Merritt Chase and for many others.

Brewers and shopkeepers, preachers and theologians, healers and admirals, writers and high-ranking officials commissioned paintings from Hals. The famous French philosopher Rene Descartes posed for him. His group portraits gained fame outside Haarlem, and, in 1633, the master was asked to paint the company of Captain Reinier Reael and Lieutenant Cornelis Blaeuw. Hals started working on the painting, but after a prolonged conflict with the client, he quit the whole thing including the canvas, which is nowadays known as the “Meagre Company”. The painting had been finished by Pieter Codde.

However, despite the recognition, the artist was constantly experiencing financial difficulties, mainly because of his large family. Even in the 1630s, when his portraitist services were valued more than anything else, he was sued by a butcher, a baker, and a shoemaker for unpaid debts. In 1654, Hals paid the baker, giving away some household items and five paintings, including the works by Maerten van Heemskerck and Karel van Mander.

Since 1662 and until his death, Hals had received a subsidy from the city council. Initially, that was a one-time payment of 50 guilders plus an annual allowance of 150 guilders, and then the amount increased to 200 guilders. Previously, the master was exempted from paying contributions to the Guild of St. Luke, which, however, was not due to financial insolvency, but rather to his advanced age.

Frans Hals died in 1666 and was buried on September 1 in The Cathedral of Saint Bavo - the largest Protestant temple of Haarlem. His wife outlived him by about nine years, and she had to exist on the allowance for the poor.

Cheap black

Hals’ artistic style had been transformed throughout his life. Bright colorful paintings of the early period were gradually replaced by the artworks in which only one tone prevailed. After 1641, the painter showed a tendency to limiting the palette. He rather hinted at the color, but did not show it clearly. In his later works, dark and even black shades began to dominate; brushstrokes became looser, small details faded into the background in comparison with the overall impression.

If the early paintings exuded fun and liveliness (“Merrymakers at Shrovetide”, “The Gypsy Girl”, “The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company”), his later works emphasized the status and dignity of the people portrayed (“The traveler”, “Portrait of an elderly lady”). Such asceticism was manifested in the group portraits of “The Regents of the Old Men’s Almshouse”, “The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem” (both c. 1664). Those were masterpieces of color, although, indeed, they were monochrome. Colors from year to year grew darker until the shadows turned almost completely black, as in the “Portrait of Tyman Oosdorp”.

Since that trend coincideed with Hals’ period of poverty, some art historians suggested that his penchant for black and white pigments was dictated by their lower price compared to expensive colorful lacquers and carmines.

A lot of Hals’ paintings had disappeared over the centuries, but no one knows for sure how many of them are missing. According to the most authoritative catalog to date, compiled by Seymour Slive in 1970 - 1974, another 222 paintings could be attributed to the artist. Another expert, Klaus Grimm, believes that their number is less - 145.

It is not known whether Hals ever painted landscapes, still lives or narrative paintings. However, this is unlikely. Most Dutch artists of the 17th century had a specialization, and Hals, apparently, was a “pure” portrait painter.

Technique and Legacy

A lot of people believed that Hals created his works in one go. Scientific and technical studies had proven that theory to be incorrect. A significant part of the paintings contained successive layers, as was customary at that time. Sometimes the drawing was applied with chalk or paint on top of gray or pink soil, and then gradually filled. It seemed that the artist put paints very freely - that was especially noticeable in several late, more sophisticated works. Hals showed great courage, bravery and virtuosity. He had the ability to tear off a brush from a canvas or panel in the heat of the moment. He did not “paint over his sitters to death,” as most of his contemporaries did, regardless of whether their clients asked them to or not.

Hals’ “schematic” painting style was not unique to the 17th century — such an approach had already existed in Italy a century earlier. The artist was probably inspired by the work of his colleagues Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck.

It is worth noting that Frans Hals was also a good teacher. He taught five sons of his (Harmen, Frans the Younger, Reynier, Nicolaes and Jan) and the future son-in-law - genre painter and master of still lives Pieter van Roestraten. In addition, Adriaen Brouwer and Adriaen van Ostade studied at his studio. Despite the lack of documents, it is also believed that the craft of painting was comprehended by Jan Miense Molenaer and Judith Leyster; in any case, Hals was closely acquainted with the last one.
After death, the painter gradually lost his reputation. The value of his works has fallen so much over two centuries that some of the paintings that have now become the pearls of public collections were sold literally for a penny. But since the mid-19th century, the prestige of Hals has risen again, and so has the cost of his artworks. In 1889, “Portrait of Pieter van den Broecke” was sold for 4 thousand 420 pounds, and nine years later, the National Gallery in London paid 25 thousand for a “Family Group in a Landscape” from the collection of Lord Talbot de Malahide.

Hals’ paintings nowadays are in museum collections all around the world. Since the end of the 19th century, the connoisseurs have gathered them everywhere - from Antwerp to Toronto and from London to New York. Many paintings and panels were then sold to American collectors, who appreciated the artist’s uncritical attitude to wealth and status.

The largest collection of works by the painter is in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem.

Author: Vlad Maslov
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